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Angels camp report: Halos hope to get past high expectations

By Scott Miller | Senior Baseball Columnist

TEMPE, Ariz. -- Brilliant expectations in stunning colors ascend over the horizon each morning here with the rising sun. Undeniable, relentless pressure threatens dehydration every bit as much as the arid desert air.

No secret that it's World Series or bust for the Angels as they plow into 2013 with Josh Hamilton, Albert Pujols, Mike Trout, Jered Weaver and all the finesse of bulls charging down the streets of Pamplona.

That they do so while stepping over the shattered pieces of 2012 only increases the stakes.

The Angels have been here, done this before. Twelve months ago. Pujols showed up, everybody swooned and autumn plans were made.

Mistake.

Now comes Hamilton (five years, $125 million) on top of Pujols (10 years, $240 million), and those impossibly high expectations from last spring … are jacked up for 2013 to a level that is even impossibly higher.

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"I think so, man," Weaver, the ace who went 20-5 with a 2.81 ERA last year, admits. "Last year, expectations were really high. And anytime you add a guy like Hamilton into the middle of the lineup, I would assume expectations will get even higher.

"From the outside looking in, people hype it up more than the players do. We recognize the type of team we have, but we have to make it work.

"We didn't make it work last year. We worked together at the end of the season a lot better than at the beginning."

Owner Arte Moreno's checks haven't bounced. But they ain't exactly paying high dividends so far, either.

Apologists point out that, last summer, the Angels (89-73) finished with a better record than Detroit (88-74) yet the Tigers won the weak AL Central and roared all the way to the World Series. Pujols and Co. finished third in their own division.

Bottom line, you play the cards that you get and the schedule in front of you. And the Angels didn't do either anywhere close to well enough.

April and May were unmitigated disasters, both for Pujols, the three-time MVP who was hitting .247 with eight homers and 28 RBI through 51 games at the end of May, and for the club.

By the time the Angels regained their balance, there was neither enough schedule left nor fuel in their tanks to complete a Houdini-like escape.

With the beginning of full-squad workouts on Friday, they again have every reason to see the World Series somewhere off in the distance. Except. ...

"You can't really take that mindset into the season," Weaver says. "You have to have a cocky attitude to a point, but a cocky attitude can catch up to you.

"I think we had it a little bit early in the season last year. Everybody was hyping us up so much. Hopefully, we don't take that mentality into this season. Hopefully, we take it one game at a time instead.

"Don't get me wrong. It's not like we were badasses going into the season. But we were looking ahead a little too much instead of looking at April."

Early on, things veered from disheartening to debacle. When hitting coach Mickey Hatcher, manager Mike Scioscia's longtime confidante, was fired in May, the tension in Angel Stadium crackled like frayed electrical wires for the next month.

Several Angels spoke this week of the importance of having fun and staying loose, Pujols, Hamilton, rookie sensation Trout, new starting pitcher Tommy Hanson and reliever Ernesto Frieri among them.

But the combination of money that Moreno has spent and the suffocating atmosphere that he has created over the years has become the enemy of having fun and staying loose.

Many have been fired from the front office, baseball operations folks for reasons ranging from underperformance to personality conflicts, others the innocent victims of brutal, cold-blooded budget cuts.

Pressure is palpable everywhere throughout the organization. As the player payroll skyrockets, every last dollar elsewhere is tagged and watched like a wild animal in a federal nature program.

Everyone appears to feel the stress, from overworked club employees collegiately outfitted each day in red Angels clothing (Moreno's orders) to Scioscia, who last summer became far more testy and impatient than he has ever been while working alongside first-year general manager Jerry Dipoto.

That last part is especially important, because one of the manager's many strengths over the years has been deflecting significant quantities of that pressure from the clubhouse.

But an 8-15 April that left the Angels nine games back in the AL West only made everyone tighter, and it set the tone for a bitterly disappointing season.

Notably, during a joint press conference on Thursday with Hamilton and Trout, Pujols agreed with Weaver that maybe not enough attention was paid to the smaller details early last season.

"Maybe I tried to do a little bit too much last year that first month," Pujols said. "I can speak for everybody, except maybe [Mark] Trumbo -- he was about the only guy who was hitting in April.

"But everybody else, we were trying to do too much. We knew what kind of team we had. We knew we were better than what our record was showing, and sometimes you press. If you don't do that, you're inhuman. Expanding the strike zone, trying to hit a two-run homer with nobody on base … it happens."

Pujols rebounded from his arctic start to finish with 30 homers and 105 RBIs. Still pretty good, but too little, too late.

"I saw what everybody else saw," Hamilton says, speaking of his view from Texas last summer. "At the beginning of the season they started rough, and then they finished strong. They were a totally different team, playing against them, from beginning to end.

"It comes back to relaxing. You don't want to be the team that has all the talent in the world but can't win ballgames because you can't get along or you're stressing out."

Hamilton, Pujols and Trout repeatedly talked about relaxing and having fun when they met the media in Thursday's made-for-TV press conference.

But given the crushing weight of a payroll expected to check in around $160 million and the temperamental Moreno lurking in the background … do those words "fun" and "relax" have a place anywhere around here?

It's easy for Hamilton to say that when the pressure mounts, these Angels simply have to remind each other that "it's just a game." But those are February words, not April or August words.

At these dollars, it's not just a game.

So here they go again.

"Our goal is to win everything, but one game at a time," Pujols says. "It's 162 games, try to win one pitch at a time, one at-bat at a time, one base at a time. Go from there. And don't try to win three or four games in a row. "

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